Balancing Out a Mindful Approach to Development

I felt sad because everyday I had to wake up early to practice before going to school. After school I had to go back to tennis again, and then after tennis I had homework. I didn’t have time to play. ~ Li Na

It’s All about Play

For many years it has been known that Tennis is a sport that players may practice and practice, but don’t often play. Very slowly the tide has turned with the ‘Game-Based Approach’, but the needle may have swung almost completely the other way, in many cases.  We also know that almost two thirds of the players who play a tournament will not play another one. Part of that problem, where players play one USTA tournament and quit, is one of lack of preparation. Finding the best possible balance between instruction and play is not easy, it really takes work, mindfulness and close observation of the needs of our players. As coaches, we can do a better job of working with the global needs of a group, as well as the individual needs of each player.

Get Real

I recently fired a player.

Practice and No Play

As you might be aware, I went through a period of time where I wasn’t teaching a lot of tennis, due to my writing schedule, and developing some different tennis enterprises. I had a student who is a foreign national. His parents desperately wanted for him to learn tennis, as those that want their child to learn a musical instrument, but never participate in a performance. This young student had been in programs where he was the lowest player on the ladder, and felt that people were picking on him, laughing at him. This 11 year old had been placed with lower aged players, because his level of play was so weak.

We began to have private lessons twice a week. He is not the most gifted athlete and by virtue of his very analytical and pessimistic view of the world, it was tough sledding to get him to play much better, but we succeeded to some degree. When the time was right for this student to actually play tennis, he failed to do it. I prodded him to consider playing a ‘play day’, which is not even an official match situation. I spoke to him and his parents numerous times, about getting in the game. Then another player who I coach, who is very active playing, asked for one of those private lesson time slots, so I gave it to them. I also put the player in question on notice that my time is limited and I really only work with players who play the sport. So, I urged him to join his middle school tennis team, which he had been on the year before. After a lot of back and forth with the parents, it was decided that his academic schedule was too busy to make that commitment. We also reached a point in his training where his technique was about as good as it could get in the vacuum of no competition. There was not much more I could teach without trying to solve the problems of winning a match. Once I had said to him “If you were actually playing matches, you would need to do this…” for about the fiftieth time, I realized I was done, there was nothing more I could teach him until he gained the lessons from competition. The family was not understanding the issue and they went away perplexed. Of course, I lost some income, but preserved my brain cells and self respect. I would urge all coaches that there must be some competition built into the structure of a player’s training, or you will find yourself wondering what else can be done with a player who doesn’t play.

Play with Little or No Practice

On the other end of the spectrum, there are players who really only want to play, and they have very little patience for any kind of mindful practice. They will fire you, if you make them stop and practice a particular shot, or sequence for up to 20 minutes. We see this a lot in adult team play, where practice in the minds of these players consists only of warming up and playing some sets of singles and/or doubles. Maybe that is an extension of what they learned from their previous team experiences.
Somewhere in the middle, is this area where the work is done. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that their should be a battle for hearts and minds over practicing in a way that will actually help in competition.

Here is a quiz question from the USATennisCoach test, and we hope its pretty obvious.

39. Games, Drills and Challenges are best when:
A. A certain set of skills are required.
B. A greater level of precision is required than in a match.
C. The outcomes for winning or losing are greater and more exciting that a normal match.
D. None of the Above.
E. All of the Above.

The Fight for Equilibrium

In working with the best team I have ever coached, made up of players who had attended numerous academies and taken private lessons often through their young lives, I was amazed at the battle I faced in teaching them how to play tennis. I had to teach them NOT to hit cross court approach shots to the forehand of the opponent. No one had ever successfully taught them that it’s not ideal to hit a sharp angled topspin shot at the same speed, as you would a drive deep crosscourt. Players balked when I gave them creative exercises, like using orange dot balls for 20 minutes. You would have thought a revolt was going to break out at practice. By the end they were having fun, but they learned something crucial to our future success: deep/short and short/deep combinations are very effective at getting your opponent out of position. The orange balls made the advantage more pronounced, but the same advantage is available with regular balls on a more subtle level. My players had another tool to use to win singles matches where they might be overmatched in power or athleticism.

Drill and Challenge Self Fulfilling Prophecy and the Fear of the Unknown

When we first started to play One Bounce Doubles, players would let the ball drop harmlessly and lose the point, then drop their heads and say ‘This is Dumb’. One of my best pet phrases is “Drills don’t work, people do.” If the players are not making the drill or challenge work, then it will cease to be effective. After a short time of changed attitudes, and working the drill, the players found One Bounce Doubles to be fun, helping them learn to be more aggressive in their movement to take more balls out of the air, which I had pointed out to them, praising them profusely on more than one occasion. When we graduated to No Bounce Doubles, they then were excited to see that they could do it. Our doubles teams dominated the competition. From that time on, we seemed to always win 2 out of 3 three doubles matches on the rare occasions when we did not sweep the doubles. In our run to the Section title, we went 11-1 in doubles, including sweeping doubles and winning #4 singles to win he title. In fact, all of our big upsets in sectional play included a sweep in doubles. We would hear from opponents, “Oh, good luck, our doubles team never loses.” More often than not, we gave them their first loss.
You, like me, can reflect on the many times in life when we resisted doing something or going somewhere because of the fear of the unknown, or because at first it was uncomfortable, or we might fail at first. Later, when the benefits are discovered or our fears were found false, or we had an incredible experience, we learned to trust those who would take us down that path.

The Benefits

It’s a given that, we will face resistance while we are working with players on, what they really need, instead of what they might want for themselves on the surface. Doing a bit more work to help influence our players to make better decisions will be tiring at times. Asking questions, waiting through awkward silences, doing new activities that will look very ugly at first, seeing the figurative smoke pouring out of the ears of our players as they suffer through cognitive dissonance, is not at all pleasant. The good book says, ‘no discipline at the moment seems pleasant, but in the end when it yields a harvest of righteousness…’ is a practical piece of wisdom. Others have said, ‘The pain is forgotten when the benefits are received.’ Yes, being thoughtful and courageous to go about giving players what they really need, instead of what they think they want, or what conventional wisdom has told you to do, can be painful. It also can be a revelation, liberating, and refreshing to you and your players. When we share a specialized, customized way that is our special way of doing things, in the end players have an opportunity to really feel valued at the end. If we go back to the player I fired, I sent a strong message to them, that creating something of real value is not simply bought with a private lesson check, it also requires a mindful approach about what all the best steps are to come out at the end fully developed as a player.

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